Just over a month ago, in the midst of the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito bullying scandal, Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin was in a precarious position. After a Week 10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football, the Dolphins fell to just 4-5 after opening the season at 3-0. Multiple news outlets reported that owner Stephen Ross would likely fire both Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland for poor team performance and failure to create a positive work environment.
Even before Martin walked away from the team, a disgruntled Dolphins fan created the "Fire Joe Philbin" Twitter handle to try and rally fellow fans around the notion of running Philbin out of Miami.
But just as every NFL expert was ready to write the Dolphins and coach Philbin off, they quietly started winning football games.
They beat a strong San Diego Chargers team in Miami, and after losing a tight game to the Carolina Panthers, they rebounded with gritty victories on the road against the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Then, on Sunday against the 10-3 New England Patriots, they made a resounding statement to the rest of the NFL with a thrilling come-from-behind victory. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill capped off the game-winning drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Thigpen.
Even with all of his recent success as a head coach, Philbin is the last guy on the planet to draw attention to himself. He's a humble, even-keeled X's and O's coach who's kept his team focused in the midst of unprecedented scrutiny. He hasn't concerned himself with national recognition or worried about his public image after he was heavily criticized for his perceived role in the scandal.
When Philbin speaks to his team, his players soak up his words like a sponge.
Cornerback Nolan Carroll recalls Philbin addressing the team as the noise around the scandal reached a fever pitch. "We're going to have downs. We're going to have a lot of downs," Carroll quoted Philbin as saying. "The key is, in those downs, stick together even more. Be supportive of everybody."
It would have been so easy for this Dolphins team, who had lost two starting offensive linemen and were enduring a stretch of five losses in six games, to throw in the towel on the season. In just his second year as an NFL head coach, Philbin has found a way to continue to focus on improving the details necessary to produce victories.
Speaking in regard to Philbin's leadership, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman told the Miami Herald, "...you have no idea what a task that is to keep a team together and not splinter. We wouldn’t be in this position if he [Philbin] wasn’t able to pull us all together, coaches and players alike.”
Sunday's win now gives the Dolphins a great chance to snag the sixth and final Wild Card spot in the AFC playoffs, where they haven't appeared since 2008. If they're able to win their final two games on the road against the Buffalo Bills and at home against the New York Jets, they'll be in regardless of what the Baltimore Ravens do because the Dolphins own the tiebreaker over the Cincinnati Bengals.
You won't hear Philbin, who preaches game-by-game preparation, discussing what a playoff berth would mean to him, his players or the franchise.
He doesn't have to. It would be a gigantic step forward for this Dolphins team, who made aggressive moves in free agency to try and close the gap in the AFC East. With the guidance and extraordinary resolve of their coach, the Dolphins are doing just that.
Oh and by the way, the "Fire Joe Philbin" Twitter handle hasn't tweeted since Nov. 11.
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